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How will you escape?

March 17, 2019, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Matthew 23:29-39) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Matthew
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Matthew 马太福音

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Title: How will you escape?
Date: 17th Mar 2019
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Let’s begin with a story found in 2 Chronicles 22-24 (and 2 Kings 11-12). It is about King Joash. When he was a baby, following the death of his father, Ahaziah, his grandmother Athaliah killed all the descendants to usurp the throne. Joash was saved by his paternal aunt, who was married to the high priest, Jehoiada. After hiding him in the Temple for seven years, Jehoiada had Joash crowned and anointed king in a coup. Athaliah was killed. 【1】

Here is where the story becomes relevant to our passage. 2 Chronicles 24: 17 After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them. 18 They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols. Because of their guilt, God’s anger came on Judah and Jerusalem. 19 Although the Lord sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not listen.
20 Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the Lord’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’”
21 But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. 22 King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah’s father Jehoiada had shown him but killed his son, who said as he lay dying, “May the Lord see this and call you to account.”

What are your thoughts and feelings after listening to the story? You might have felt outrage at Joash for his ingratitude. Jehoiada saved Joash’s life and made him king, yet Joash killed his son Zechariah. If Zechariah was evil, then he deserved his death. But Zechariah was being a faithful prophet to speak to the people in the Holy Spirit. He was trying to save them from their sins of idolatry and unfaithfulness to God, yet he lost his life. Besides outrage, you might have felt that these people deserved their judgment for what they did to Zechariah. But besides feeling anger and being judgmental, there’s also a lesson to be learned here. There should be a reminder to future generations to respect them. The prophets and the righteous must be honored as a tribute to their sacrifices. That’s precisely what the Jews did: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.” (v.29)

But here’s the reflection that we need to do: Why didn’t it work? Or perhaps in Jesus’ more negative way of asking, 33 How will you escape being condemned to hell? (v33) We often use stories for moral teachings, thinking that we will learn the values after listening to the stories. But has it proven so? Jesus described the Jews as, 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ (v.30) 30 I think it is an honest description of humanity. Just because we hear a story, it does not mean that we will internalize the story. Like just a moment ago, when we were listening to the story of Joash, how many of us chose to be self-reflective instead of being self-righteous?

There was a research on the effectiveness of moral stories on children. “As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty. Is it ‘in one ear, out the other,’ or do children listen and take the messages to heart?” To find out, the researchers conducted an experiment with 268 children aged 3 to 7. Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room for a minute to grab a book, instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist.
When the experimenter returned, she read the child a story, either “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinocchio,” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” Afterwards, the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she peeked at the toy.
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — which associated lying with negative consequences, such as public humiliation and even death — were not effective at promoting honest behavior. 【2】

Even though the experiment was done with children, I believe we will yield the same result for adults. This was proven by the Jews of Jesus’ generation. The stories of their unfaithful forefathers did not teach them to be faithful. Despite the tombs for the prophets and the graves of the righteous, they continued to persecute the righteous and the prophets. In our passage today, Jesus talked about his rejection, 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (v.39) Yet, you might wonder, that’s precisely what the crowd declared when Jesus first entered Jerusalem.
In Matthew 21: 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”
11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

If the crowd had already declared ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, then why did Jesus demand the same declaration once again? That’s because it is one thing to say it, but it is another to truly mean it. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was already identified by the crowd as a prophet. When they cried out ‘Hosanna’, the word means “Save us”. But were they willing to listen to the prophet? Were they willing to be saved? Unfortunately, no. When Jesus challenged the Temple system, they retaliated. When Jesus fought with the priests and elders, they fought back to challenge his authority. (Matthew 21:12-27) The Pharisees laid traps using the imperial tax. (Matthew 22:15-22) The Sadducees questioned him with a theological riddle about resurrection. (Matthew 22:23-33) These were not the actions of repentant hearts and open ears. These were not actions to welcome a messenger from God. These were the actions of vipers who aimed to kill the righteous and the prophets.

Brothers and sisters, the same can happen to us. If we think that ‘if we had lived in the days of Jesus, we would not have taken part in killing him’, then truly we are no different from the Jews. But let us reflect honestly. Would we be repentant and open if a prophet is here to challenge our worship practices? Can we be humble enough to listen to criticisms about our hypocrisy and blindness? We have to admit that we are often stubborn in our ways and defensive against criticisms. Yet, the fact of the matter is, challenges and criticisms are necessary to prevent our practices from becoming stale and our growth from becoming stagnant. And what is stale and stagnant will eventually be dead. There needs to be prophets of every generation called to deliver the words of God to awaken the people and save them. I think this is the first critical step towards listening and honoring prophets: we first need to understand their role. Their role is to save.

The prophet’s role is to save others by the words of God, and very often, at the cost of self-sacrifice. Jesus described himself as ‘as a hen (who) gathers her chicks under her wings’ (v.37). This protective behavior is true of ducks, swans, and some other birds as well. The sins of Jerusalem would bring forth the wrathful judgment of God. Jesus came to save the people. He might be using words of judgment, and they might be harsh and unpleasant. I’m sure the Jewish religious leaders felt threatened and insecure. But the intention was never to destroy but to save. Yet as a prophet, Jesus must be willing to live by his words, and die for his words. Only then, can salvation be possibly fulfilled. And even then, most prophets failed. King Joash was destroyed for his evil deeds. Jerusalem too.

If the prophet’s role is to save us, why won’t we listen to them? Ironically, it has to do with success. If we were drowning or in critical danger, then we are likely to take any advice or appreciate any help that is offered. Prophets in such times have an easier job. But sometimes the biggest danger comes in the midst of success and prosperity. That is when we have pride and self-interest to guard the status quo. Joash’s danger arrived when his kingship was finally secured. Jerusalem’s danger arrived when the entire Temple system had been fully restored by King Herod the Great. Prophets at those times were not welcomed with their message of salvation. The people might cry out Hossana, Hosanna, but they had no real desire to be saved, because they were unwilling to transform. But this is dangerous because we cannot see our blind spots. It starts with complacency. Like a small cancer cell. But the more we ignore it, the bigger it grows. The worst is when we start to lie to ourselves. The righteous and the prophets might try to save you, but you would rather pretend everything is ok just to feel secure. But when cancer moves from stage 1 to stage 4, it might be too late.

Why don’t we learn our lessons? How will we escape being condemned to hell? (v.33) I would like to end with a positive story. 【3】 Pastor Weikang in last week’s sermon shared about the story of Han Kuo Yu, who became the major of Kaohsiung. 【4】 I had already noticed this man 1 year before he became phenomenal last year. It was during the KMT chairmanship election in 2017. Han Kuo Yu was a candidate in the election, and there was a telecast of the election debate. Since it was a debate, everyone was trying to prove their worth by listing their contributions to the party. What made me notice Han Kuo Yu was his message. Instead of hooting his own horn, he chose to use his limited allocated time to praise all the other candidates to say how good they were. You can tell it wasn’t out of flattery because he would add in personal, sincere anecdotes about what he observed about each candidate. I thought at that time that this guy was really different, but he didn’t win that election. He got only 5% of the votes, whereas the winner got more than 50% of the votes.

What made this a positive story for me was his consistency as a person. Pastor Weikang was talking about the virtues of 真善美 (honesty and goodness), that it must be something that you practice at all times, and not only when it suits your situation. You practice it even if you may be disadvantaged. Han Kuo Yu was able to appeal for a clean election last year because he had a long-term good friendship with his political opponent even though they were from opposing parties. So this is my reflection about the righteous and the prophets. It has to do with a consistency to be humble and open-hearted. There may be times when you are disadvantaged because you keep a listening ear even with people you disagree with. But when it comes to the moment when God sends his messenger to you, even in the midst of success, you would be willing to acknowledge your faults. And that’s how you can be saved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jehoash_of_Judah
[2]https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/moral-tales-with-positive-outcomes-motivate-kids-to-be-honest.html
[3] Let us look at the research about moral stories again. Out of the 3 moral stories on lying, only the tale about George Washington seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking. It is effective because it demonstrates “the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behavior is, as well as demonstrating the behavior itself.” To promote moral behavior, emphasizing the positive outcomes rather than the negative consequences is the key.
[4] http://www.jubilee.org.sg/sermons/?sermon_id=914

Matthew 23:29–39 (Listen)

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38 See, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

(ESV)